One of the most interesting lines from the New Hampshire Republican presidential debate last night came from Mitt Romney, during the brief discussion of foreign policy. Romney was asked about Afghanistan and responded that he wanted troops home as soon as possible, so long as doing so was consistent with the recommendations from U.S. generals.

It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the Taliban military in a way that they’re able to defend themselves. Excuse me, the Afghan military to defend themselves from the Taliban. That’s an important distinction.

I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.

This was a pretty standard recitation of the Republican position on Afghanistan. It was the next sentence that raised some eyebrows.

But I also think we’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.

What did Romney mean when he said, “our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation”? NBC’s Chuck Todd took it as a move away from the hawkish Republican foreign policy of the past decade. So did Ryan Lizza, from the New Yorker, who found it “striking” that Romney “sounded a lot less like George W. Bush and more like Ron Paul.” Republican foreign policy types emailed one another last night to debate the meaning of Romney’s words.

Was Romney channeling the isolationist wing of the Republican Party? Was he laying the foundation to argue for an expedited withdrawal? In his mind, is the war to some extent merely “a war of independence for another nation?” And if so, was it worth fighting?

If Romney were making such an argument, it would certainly represent a change in his thinking. In a well received speech at the Heritage Foundation in June 2009, Romney laid out his vision for a foreign and national security policy that recognized and embraced America’s unique role in the world. It was America’s willingness to fight wars of liberation and to “nurture democracy and human rights all over the worl,” that made the United States “the hope of the earth.”

“Since [World War II], American soldiers have fought in remote places. America sacrificed the blood of its sons and daughters and sent treasure abroad, helping nurture democracy and human rights all over the world. We sustained a network of alliances and built military prowess that at first contained and then defeated Soviet communism. Because of what America did in the 20th century, there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who now live in freedom – who, but for the price paid by the United States, would have lived in despair. I know of no other such example of national selflessness in the history of mankind. That is why America is the hope of the earth.”

Later, in arguing against defense cuts, Romney contrasted the U.S. military with their Chinese counterparts. He approvingly noted that America’s unique role in the world meant “worldwide commitments” rather than just “regional objectives.”

“We respond to humanitarian crises, protect world shipping and energy lanes, deter terrorism, prevent genocide, and lead peace-keeping missions. And most significantly, our military is required to maintain a global presence; theirs is not. It is a far more demanding task to keep worldwide commitments than simply to build a force that can accomplish regional objectives.”

During a fact finding mission to Afghanistan in January, Romney suggested that the U.S. presence there would be long-term if Republicans were in charge. "It is my desire and my political party's desire to support the people of Afghanistan and not to leave."

Jen Rubin of the Washington Post reached out to Romney’s campaign and got the following statement from Eric Fehrnstrom. “Governor Romney supported the entry into Afghanistan and the surge to prevent the country from being a launching pad for terror. What he wants to see now is Afghan leadership step up in a way that’s been missing. They need to show the passion for liberty that is essential for independence.” (TWS also sought clarification and got the same statement.)

She writes: “Well, that doesn’t sound like he’s bugging out prematurely or that he thinks the war was misguided at its inception.”

Romney was asked about his views on Afghanistan at a hardware store in New Hampshire this morning. He once again said that the decision on a timetable should be made not based on politics or budgets, but conditions on the ground. (Afghanistan comments come at roughly 4:00.)

Ben Smith at Politico took these comments to mean that Romney wants to get out of Afghanistan even more quickly than the White House. I think they can be read as making the opposite point – that a precipitous withdrawal (based on politics or economics) would be unwise.

In conversations with people familiar with Romney’s thinking, I’m told he is not looking for a quick and easy way out of Afghanistan. His warning about not seeking an exit because of politics or budgets was meant to contrast – not echo – the White House. It has been widely reported that the White House’s decision making on Afghanistan has been driven by domestic political concerns. And over the past two weeks, we’ve seen numerous stories about the White House sudden concern about spending. And, importantly, Romney’s comments can be seen as a challenge to those in his own party who are seeking to end the war in Afghanistan rather than win it.

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